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By the time the samurai film genre, along with Japanese cinema itself, announced its presence on the global stage at the dawn of the 1950s with Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, thousands of tales featuring the legendary warriors had already been filmed. Their popularity has experienced peaks and troughs in the 70 years since, but samurai have never come close to disappearing from the screen.
Now a new crop of productions explore themes both novel and traditional and are taking fresh perspectives and interpretations on the genre. Meanwhile, 21st-century technology, retellings of classic stories and protagonists with modern sensibilities promise to find new audiences for the world of topknot-wearing, sword-wielding warriors.
Part of the appeal of the samurai film is the thematic diversity and vast historical era that the genre spans. Rashomon was unusual not just for its seminal narrative structure but also for its setting in the 11th century, the early days of the samurai. But the term jidaigeki — which translates as “period drama” and also applies to TV dramas — for many conjures up images of stories from the Edo period, which began with the unification of Japan in 1603 and ended with the abolition of the samurai class in 1868. During that time many samurai became ronin — masterless warriors with no lord to serve, ideal fodder for tales of heroes and antiheroes. Some see a more prosaic reason for the preponderance of stories onscreen from the Edo era, rather than the bloody century and a half that preceded it.
“For those 260 years, there were no major wars, so it’s much cheaper to shoot productions from that period,” suggests Yoshitaka Ishizuka, producer of We’re Broke, My Lord, a samurai comedy directed by Tetsu Maeda that’s set to hit Japanese theaters in June. “In the time of Akira Kurosawa, there were bigger budgets, and so he could make action-filled films from the Warring States era.”
From the 1910s to the 1930s, Japanese studios cranked out more than 100 samurai flicks annually. Production took a major hit in the 1940s — first from World War II, and then from the occupying U.S. authorities, who banned nearly every depiction of feudal values as they tried to expunge every vestige of the ultra-nationalism that had hearkened back to the spirit of the samurai as Japan marched to war.
Once rehabilitated after the occupation ended, samurai stories became a pillar of Japan’s golden age of film in the 1950s and 1960s. But when cinemagoing declined in parallel with television’s rise, they suffered doubly as the remaining audiences drifted toward other genres.
Meanwhile, the genre began to make its presence felt on the small screen, in no small part through the yearlong taiga dramas produced by public broadcaster NHK. Not all the historical dramas featured samurai, and NHK made other jidaigeki, but the scale and scope of the taiga productions stand alone in television terms.
“When taiga drama launched in 1963, television series were widely perceived as low-level entertainment compared to films or stage plays,” explains Yukie Okamoto, head of drama production at NHK.
“Taiga drama was NHK’s attempt to create a large-scale production on a par with films that would be the highest quality entertainment in Japan.”
The 1987 taiga drama Dokuganryu Masamune (One-Eyed Dragon Masamune), based on the life of a warlord from northern Japan, remains the most popular ever and through its 50 episodes broke an actor who would go on to become the worldwide face of Japanese cinema.
“Dokuganryu Masamune logged truly incredible 39.7 percent average viewing figures while it aired every Sunday for a year. Ken Watanabe, who went on to a globally successful career, really made his name in that series,” notes Okamoto.
Such figures put it comfortably ahead of the 26.3 percent average scored by the hit 1980 Shōgun miniseries in the U.S. Shōgun introduced samurai to mainstream American audiences and starred Kurosawa’s muse Toshiro Mifune as a character based on Tokugawa Ieyasu, the warlord who finished unifying Japan. A Shōgun remake starring Hiroyuki Sanada in the Mifune role is set to premiere on FX on Hulu this year.
The taiga drama What Will You Do, Ieyasu?, currently airing on NHK, charts the life of the same warlord but with a portrayal that speaks to some of the shifts that the genre has undergone in recent years.
Stoic warriors willing to face death at any moment can still be found onscreen. However, there are more frequent depictions far less emblematic of the samurai ideal. Okamoto links this to the change in societal values that has taken place in Japan since its era of rapid economic growth ended, and with it the veneration of a win-at-all-costs mindset.
“In What Will You Do, Ieyasu? the Ieyasu character is indecisive, vacillating and really pretty weak,” says Okamoto with a chuckle. The protagonist of We’re Broke, My Lord, a bastard son of a lord who suddenly inherits his father’s fiefdom only to discover it’s drowning in debt, is also far from a classic samurai figure.
“He’s a kind of hero for today; he’s considerate, gentle, doesn’t get mad at people. The director, Maeda, wanted him to be the sort of leader needed now,” explains producer Ishizuka.
Other contemporary details include having a young woman from outside the samurai class at his side giving advice, an element that wasn’t in the 2019 novel on which the film is based.
Ishizuka points to the Rurouni Kenshin films, produced by Warner Bros. Japan through local production outfit Studio Swan, as “epoch-making” in terms of changing the notion of how samurai fare could appeal to young audiences. Directed by Keishi Ohtomo and starring Takeru Satoh in the eponymous lead, the five films (based on a manga series about a somewhat sensitive, romantic former warrior who tries to avoid killing) took around $200 million worldwide between 2012 and 2021.
Stories that reflect the lives of ordinary people during the samurai era have also become more common. Released in Japan at the end of April and presented almost entirely in black and white, Junji Sakamoto’s Okiku and the World tells of a class-crossing romance between the daughter (Haru Kuroki) of a fallen samurai (Koichi Sato) and a trader (Kanichiro) who makes his living collecting human waste and selling it to farmers. Intertwined with the elements of tragedy, humor and romance, it is an examination of the sustainable nature of the Edo (now Tokyo) economy, a theme also touched upon in We’re Broke, My Lord (in which Sato also appears as a samurai who has seen better days).
Baian the Assassin M.D. is another fictional tale of a non-samurai character in Edo, in this case an acupuncturist with a sideline in contract killing. Previous screen adaptations include a 1990s TV series starring Watanabe as the titular character. Directed by Shunsaku Kawake, the first film in the two-part story hit Japanese theaters earlier this year and made its international premiere on streaming service Samurai vs Ninja, which launched in 40 countries on April 1. A YouTube channel of the same name that carries a rapidly expanding library of movies and drama series, accessible for free, came online last year. Samurai vs Ninja is run by Remow, a company founded in 2021 that boasts among its 20 shareholders many of Japan’s leading TV networks and publishing houses, as well as Toei and Shochiku, two of the studios with the richest history in samurai films.
The streaming service (which is geoblocked in Japan for licensing reasons) and YouTube channel aim to appeal to global fans of action films in general and those who appreciate the “very distinctive look: the kimono, chonmage [topknot hairstyle] and katana swords,” of jidaigeki, says Remow’s Shuta Hirata.
In addition to the duels and mass battles, there is the appeal of heroes who “devote themselves to others, that’s part of the uniqueness of Japanese period dramas,” says Hirata.
Despite the way values have changed, the warriors are still held in high esteem and an ideal to aspire to in many quarters, according to Hirata: “The national baseball team that recently won the WBC [World Baseball Classic] is named Samurai Japan, and we call Japanese people who take on challenges overseas ‘samurai’.”
And for all the stories of gentler samurai and common folk in times of peace, there is still room for epic tales of betrayal and death from some of history’s bloodiest days. Takeshi Kitano’s Kubi premieres in Cannes with a telling of the demise of Oda Nobunaga, one of the unifying warlords who was known to be ruthless and sadistic, even by the standards of the day. According to Kadokawa, the studio behind the film, it hearkens back to Kurosawa epics, such as his 1980 Palme d’Or winner Kagemusha.
As for the future of samurai film, Shochiku’s Ishizuka believes it still has many bright years ahead. “Essentially every Japanese director wants to make a jidaigeki at least once,” he says. “There are still a lot of famous directors yet to make one, including younger filmmakers, such as Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Michihito Fujii and Kazuya Shiraishi. With these directors in their 30s and 40s, I’m excited about what fresh elements they’ll bring to the genre.”
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